Farewell, Mama Junk

Chinese junk that called Kickemuit River home is no more


A little bit of the Kickemuit will be missing this Spring, when the warm weather returns and locals start hauling their boats back onto the river. By then Mama Junk, a 60-year-old Chinese vessel that has been a fixture on the Warren/Bristol line for years, will be long gone.

Last week, Mickey Saccoccio, 68, stood in a muddy Touisset farm field and started cutting down Mama Junk, which has been a central part of his life for 42 years. Junks are traditional Chinese merchant vessels of a centuries-old design, and his was singular in Rhode Island: With carvings of egrets, Buddha, Chinese characters (a panel on the stern says “To go with the wind is profitable”), fully battened square sails and the profile of a caravel, the three-masted Mama Junk was instantly recognizable and stood well out among the dozens of gel-coated Whalers, Pearsons and Ocean Scouts that dot the river’s many moorings.

But endless upkeep issues, time constraints, a shallow mooring and other realities forced Mr. Saccoccio’s hand. First to go last week was the stem, and the rest will go into a pile over the course of the winter.

“This boat was where I was happy,” he said Friday, walking under Mama Junk’s hull in the Long Lane field where she had been hauled.

“It feels like with (her) gone, that happiness is gone too.”

But what happiness Mama Junk gave him.

Mr. Saccoccio bought the boat in 1976, when he was 26. He spotted an ad in the Yankee Swapper and went to have a look in a Warwick backyard. The seller had had her shipped over from China and though the boat was only 16 years old, it needed structural work and wasn't fully seaworthy.

Mr. Saccoccio was originally interested in the boat not for her unique lines, but the engine. He bought it, had it hauled to Jamestown, and the lines eventually won over.

With guidance and lots of help from boatwright friends, Mama Junk was soon seaworthy. At the time he knew little about ship carpentry, but working on her then and a thousand other times over the coming years was a good teacher.

“This was my university,” he said.

Once he learned to sail her, Mama Junk proved a good friend, a provider and was always good for a smile and wave from passing boaters. Chasing fishing and charter seasons, warm weather and adventure, Mr. Saccoccio sailed Mama Junk endlessly up and down the East Coast in the coming years, from Newport to Block Island to the Vineyard, up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, through the Intracoastal Waterway and as far south as the Florida Keys.

He used her for sight-seeing charters, lived on her for many months, and did a good deal of commercial fishing off her. Over the years Mama Junk evolved and changed, with different deck configurations and many other structural and aesthetic changes along the way. While Mama Junk was always being repaired, modified or tweaked, Mr. Saccoccio enjoyed working on her and also did much of her intricate carving.

When he bought a small cottage at the bottom of Sherman Avenue on the Warren/Bristol line, a mooring was secured and Mama Junk was home. The boat has been a regular sight on the river ever since.

The old boat played such a pivotal role in Mr. Saccoccio’s life that in 1990 he wrote and published “Mama Junk’s Great Adventure,” an account of an adventure aboard her. He had 500 copies printed, and over the years has been thrilled to hear from travelers across the globe who have stumbled across the book and done a little vicarious adventuring through it.

“Mama Junk’s Great Adventure” wasn’t a full accounting of his life with the boat, and he always thought that one day he would write a second account, after his adventures with her were through.

“I might write that book now,” he said.

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Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.